Wife held in murder of husband considers psychiatric defense

Lawyer cites physical, emotional abuse

prosecutor says she could face death penalty

March 11, 2010|By Nick Madigan | nick.madigan@baltsun.com

Karla Porter, the White Marsh woman accused of enlisting three family members to help murder her husband, is considering a psychiatric defense and will argue that she suffered from decades of physical and emotional abuse, her attorney said Thursday.

A prosecutor, meanwhile, said Porter could face the death penalty for her role in the murder of William "Ray" Porter, who was shot outside his Towson-area gas station on March 1 and died two days later.

The 47-year-old mother of three was denied bail for a second time Thursday, despite pleas from her attorney that she "desperately needs to meet with psychiatrists and her legal counsel" to prepare her defense against a charge of first-degree murder.

"She is a flight risk, and she is a danger to the community," Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski said of Porter, who stood before her in Baltimore County Circuit Court wearing blue jeans, a red blouse and shackles.

As details of the alleged murder-for-hire scheme continue to trickle out of the courts and police records, Thursday's hearing offered a glimpse of a suggested motive for the killing.

Police have already said Porter tried to hire someone in December and January to kill her husband, claiming he was abusive. But Thursday her attorney, Francis A. Pommett III, claimed the abuse had gone on for years, and that knowledge of the mistreatment played a role in persuading her relatives to cooperate.

"Why would someone agree to do something like that unless there had been decades of abuse?" Pommett asked in an interview after the court hearing.

"There's going to be a psychiatric element to this case," Pommett went on, adding that his client's case will include "at the very least a battered-spouse-syndrome defense."

The suggestion of an abusive relationship came as a surprise to some of the couple's acquaintances. In the Wiltondale neighborhood of Towson, where Ray Porter undertook numerous renovation projects the last decade, Preston Birckner considered him a friend. He hired Porter to add a new roof to his front porch last year, and was about to ask him for a quote on a large addition to his house.

"He was very well loved around here, always easy to work with and very amiable," Birckner said. "He seemed like a real nice guy. Everyone around here thought he was the greatest guy.

"I never heard anything about any kind of abuse."

Birckner said he had spoken to Karla Porter only a few times, and saw her most recently at her husband's wake.

"She seemed upset," Birckner said.

Porter is charged with her husband's murder along with five others. Among them is her sister, who allegedly supplied the murder weapon, her brother, who is accused of driving a hitman to the scene, and a cousin, who allegedly introduced the hitman to Porter.

The cousin, Seamus Anthony Coyle, plans to seek his release from jail soon, arguing he had no role in the crime, according to his attorney.

Also charged with murder are Walter Paul Bishop, 27, who is accused of firing the gun that killed Porter, and Matthew Philip Brown, 28, who police say went along for the ride.

According to charging documents released to The Baltimore Sun, Brown told police he met with Karla Porter and discussed the murder at the Joppa Road Hess station that she and her husband owned. He also boasted that he and Bishop joked about the murder a few days after it happened. Bishop told police Karla Porter paid him $9,000.

Detectives recovered the murder weapon, along with additional ammunition, inside the pocket of a coat hanging in a closet at Brown's house, police reports say.

While the defense in the widow's case will apparently center on the possibility that the victim's alleged treatment of his wife drove her to have him killed, some people involved in the case are skeptical. Two law enforcement sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators are exploring the possibility that Ray Porter's money offered a motive for the killing.

In addition to the gas station, Porter and his wife owned more than a dozen rental properties, and Porter himself ran a thriving home-renovation business. Although only 49 years old, Porter had been thinking about retiring to Florida in the near future a point of contention among the couple.

Pommett, Karla Porter's lawyer, said that he believes the couple's house in White Marsh to be "free and clear" of debt. He said foreclosures on two of the Porters' rental properties, listed in court records, occurred "some time ago" and "wouldn't necessarily mean that things were that dire."

"I never knew of any financial problems" in the couple's affairs, said Pommett, who has known Karla Porter for several years.

In arguing for his client's release on $500,000 bail, Pommett said Porter needs to meet with psychiatrists and lawyers. "She won't be able to do that in the Baltimore County Detention Center," he said.

Assistant State's Attorney John Cox disagreed, and accused Karla Porter of orchestrating "all the acts that gave rise to the murder of her husband." He called her "cold and callous."

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